Sordid, Bleak, Depressing. Welcome to the 18th Century.
Author: Karleen Koen
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit to having little experience of the subgenre of historical fiction into which Through a Glass Darkly fits. Set in the early 18th century England and France, this 700+ page romance tome is quite the eye opener about the time period. I don’t really mean that as a compliment.
Through a Glass Darkly tells us the tale of Barbara Alderley. Barbara is fifteen years old and a member of a privileged, noble family. Living on the country estate of Tamworth, she has been brought up by her grandmother, the Duchess, as her parents are too busy carousing in London to bother with the many offspring they produce. We enter the story as her mother, Diana, arrives at Tamworth to put an end to what she sees as an inappropriate romance between her eldest son and a neighbor girl. Diana is always cruel, always looking out for herself and scheming to get money she neither deserves nor appreciates. She is the symbol of all that is fashionable in society.
Barbara is the innocent. Her mother announces that she will be married to a much older man, one who has been a family friend for many years. Barbara is thrilled, she always loved the dashing Roger Montgeoffry and is sure that she can make him love her in return. Marriage is not about love, however, it is about money and power and obedience. Barbara will not stay innocent for long.
The Duchess is the ruling hand in the family, despite her advancing age and failing health. Hers is the voice of reason, the arbiter of societal norms and acceptability and the only one for whom love is a factor in deciding fates for her family. She wrestles with the dictates of the nobility, trying to fit them into some sort of framework that will allow her family to be genuinely happy as well as societally correct. Her job is draining and virtually impossible.
We see Barbara as she becomes educated in the lurid lifestyle of the French court of the regent Duc d’Orleans, becomes a fashionable noblewoman and falls victim to both her own immaturity and a culture seemingly bent on destroying everything it touches.
These characters are well and very thoroughly drawn by author Karleen Koen. In addition she presents the lives of Roger Montgeoffrey, several non-nobles and some of Barbara’s other family members. Barbara is likable if frustratingly immature, Diana is a wonderful evil mother and the Duchess is a fine elder stateswoman. However, the book, in all its historical accuracy, is long, depressing and presents a culture in which virtually everything is eventually rendered sordid and ugly. I understand the desire to present the time period as it was, but it’s also important to remember that in fiction one has a license to make at least a few things less than perfectly dreadful. Virtually every character is ruined by the drive to portray the excesses of the nobility or the medieval medical practices or the oppression of women. Even as we come to know and at least minimally care about the characters we become exhausted by their torture by the author.
Plain and simple, I did not enjoy Through a Glass Darkly. I recognize its historical accuracy and its carefully and generally well drawn main characters, but found myself disgusted by the culture and depressed by the unrelenting burdens suffered by each and every character. If you’re a student of this period in history and a historical fiction fan, you might enjoy the book. As a relative novice, I found it oppressive and bleak. 2 stars out of 5.
– S. Millinocket